Definitions: Child Work versus Labor

There has been an ongoing debate about how children’s labor is conceptualized: whether it is positive and a form of socialization, or negative and a form of exploitation. This led to a distinction between the definitions used to describe children’s activities. ‘Child work’ was considered to be acceptable, a social good and a form of socialization useful for children’s future lives as adults. Whereas ‘child labor’ was perceived as unacceptable, a social evil and a form of exploitation which could be detrimental for children’s futures. A distinction was made between two categories of child work: unpaid family work and paid work outside the family circle. Recent thinking on child work abandons the work/labor dichotomy, and recognizes the complexity of the nature of children’s work.

Certain activities are considered more appropriate, less harmful, and even beneficial for child workers. Children working in family enterprises or with close kin, especially in rural areas, tend not to be subject to the same risk of exploitation as those working in labor intensive industries or in an urban environment. For example, Boyden stated that in Peru, domestic service and agriculture are legally considered more appropriate for children because:

y they involve non market relations of production and are both traditional and fundamental to Peruvian society. y The assumption is that young people involved in non waged activities, recruited into the labour market through kinship networks, or working in family enterprises, are in some way guaranteed protection. Exploitation is seen solely as a function of waged employment in large impersonal concerns. (Boyden, 1988: 199)

However, it is wrong to assume that child work is protected when it occurs within kinship relations. Exploitation may be more concealed and difficult to accept in family enterprises but that does not render it nonexistent. It is often harder to intervene in cases of child exploitation when the child is dependent physically and emotionally on the exploiter. In Latin America, where fictive kinship relations exist, it can be common for rural children to work for their godparents as domestic servants in return for their upkeep or continuing their schooling. Domestic service is not only one of the main forms of child work but is also highly exploitative, as the child can be vulnerable to psychological, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Paradoxically, it is one of the activities considered most appropriate and least harmful for children, often not included in legislation or most lenient on the entry age of the child. Thus, exploitation can be concealed by ideas about reciprocity within kinship relations, which can facilitate a source of cheap labor for the wealthier of the fictive kin. It is important not to assume that kin relations are always based only on reciprocity and mutual support rather than exploitation and oppression.

Similarly, it should not be assumed that wage employment for children is necessarily exploitative. It can have positive benefits as it enables children to earn an income, however small, which can help to support themselves and/or their families. Paid work can stimulate children’s personal growth, self esteem, and development, as well as encouraging a sense of family responsibility. By earning their own money, children have access to greater decision making power and autonomy. In contrast, unpaid family work can reinforce children’s economic dependence on their parents. Some children prefer paid employment outside the home environment rather than engaging in unpaid family work. For example, children in Indonesia said they preferred to work for low wages in factories rather than for no wages for the family. Some children say they prefer paid work because it is less exploitative and has more future prospects.

Therefore, it is too simplistic to assume that child work in the urban world of commerce and industry is automatically exploitative, whereas child work in traditional occupations of farming and domestic service is a beneficial and essential form of socialization. Such a division became more accepted and accentuated because of the formation of child labor legislation. On the one hand, it tended to refer to the potential negative consequences and effects of child waged employment with non kin. On the other hand, it neglected, ignored, romanticized, or even encouraged nonremunerated work of children carried out within familial contexts. Such a simplistic division of children’s work obscured the complexities involved.

It is difficult, therefore, to classify which types of child work are ‘exploitative’ child labor and which have positive benefits. White suggested that children’s work should be viewed as on a continuum, rather than trying to categorize it as one of two extremes. It is argued that work is not just good or bad for children but on a continuum from best to worst, where at one end the experience of work is positive and beneficial, and at the other end, it is negative and destructive. Most child labor falls somewhere in between the two extremes. However, it can be difficult to decide where particular employment should be placed along the continuum, since the majority of work has both positive and negative effects simultaneously, both in the present and for children’s futures. Work for children can be seen either positively or negatively:

For large numbers of children work is an ordeal, a source of suffering and exploitation, and a fundamental abuse of human rights. Often, child labour results in educational deprivation, social disadvantage and poor health and physical development. Yet child work can be an important element in maturation, securing the transition from childhood to adulthood. It can also be essential for family survival. (Bequele and Boyden, 1988: v)

Ways in which children are considered to be ‘exploited’ vary and depend on one’s definition of ‘exploitation’. It can be seen in terms of present suffering or as having long term detrimental consequences. It is recognized that children can face many dangers at work, both physical and psychosocial. The physical hazards include the health and safety risks of dangerous working environments and the use of unsafe tools and equipment. The social dangers occur more frequently and include low pay; long hours; lack of legal protection; sexual, physical, or emotional abuse; slave like or socially isolating conditions, and work that is mundane and repetitive. Boyden et al. noted that there are major physiological, psychological, and social differences between children and adults which can increase children’s susceptibility to such hazards. However, they discussed the difficulty of measuring the actual impact of work on children. This is because of the ‘invisibility’ or subtlety of some of the effects; differing cultural views of risk and benefit; difficulty of isolating work impact from other causes (such as poverty); and the difficulty of gaining an accurate diagnosis of children’s health conditions. Con
sequently, they argued that:

ydiscussion and information about the outcomes of work for children has been confined mainly to the risks rather than to actual impacts. Emphasis usually has been placed on physical and safety issues and on the adverse effects on schooling, while psychosocial effects have been largely ignored. The overall picture that has emerged suggests that in various ways and especially physically children probably are more susceptible to adversity than are adults, although conclusive evidence has yet to be provided. (Boyden et al., 1998: 110)

Child work can also be beneficial both in the present and for the future. In the present, the child’s contribution to the survival of the household is important in much of the Majority world where children are encouraged to contribute to household income and not be a financial burden. Work is also important for the children themselves as a source of pride, satisfaction, and self esteem. Work can have a moral value, giving children a sense of efficacy and responsibility. Many children like to feel that they are making useful contributions to their families as it can increase their status as family members, as well as building their confidence. Children’s work can also give them access to a wider social network and to consumer goods. It can enhance their personal autonomy and give them a sense of independence and self reliance.

In addition, children develop useful skills which they will need for their future, and sometimes it may be crucial for them to build up their competencies with particular ways of working, such as learning to plough fields correctly. In family enterprises, the place of residence is also the place of work where children are prepared for future economic responsibilities and acquire initial skills. The household and the family can play an important role in preparing children for their future by helping them acquire the necessary skills.

Therefore, children’s work can have many benefits for children themselves and their families. These benefits and the subjective value given to work by children, their families, and communities mediate children’s vulnerability and enable them to be more resilient. The ad vantages and disadvantages of children’s work need to be weighed against each other, while also focusing on the perspectives of children and their family, taking into account their wishes and needs. For example, Woodhead showed that children in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, The Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua demonstrated an ability to reason about which work was best for them. They considered a range of costs and benefits, including relative income, security, safety, hazard, exploitation, independence, and autonomy. His study also showed that children’s perceptions of the benefits of their work, such as enhanced self esteem and sense of responsibility, often outweighed the drawbacks, such as poor working conditions. Therefore, in order to reach an adequate understanding of the nature of children’s work one must take into account the long term and short term outcomes, the specific social and cultural environment, the historical and economic context, as well as both adults’ and children’s perceptions of their own situation.